7 Things Dolphins Like to Eat (Diet & Facts)

You can recognize 43 different dolphin species, from the smallest, 5.6 feet (1.7 m) long Maui’s dolphin that weighs only 110 pounds (50 kg), to the giant, 20,000 pounds (10 tons) heavy killer whale that can reach a length of 31 feet (9.5 m).

Therefore, the answer to the question of what do dolphins eat is not easy to answer. As you can guess, their diet will depend on numerous things. Let’s see.

What Do Dolphins Eat in the Wild

If you know that there are 43 different dolphin species in nature, including two families (river and oceanic), you can suppose that their feeding habits significantly vary. Besides particular species, the chosen diet will depend on:

  • A region where they live
  • The dolphins’ noses (rostrum) shape
  • Their teeth size or type
  • Food species in their habitat
  • The calorie levels each dolphin species needs

In any case, these opportunistic feeders will grab any aquatic food they find. Most of them will prefer eating fish, but deep water species also consume jellyfish and squid. River dolphins prefer freshwater fish and crustaceans, while Spinner dolphins consume fish, krill, and jellyfish.

Their feeding habits are quite flexible, and they quickly adapt to the current habitat. As you can expect, these mammals spend hours searching for food. However, the quantity of food they consume and the number of meals depend on the particular species.

Interestingly, they often swallow seaweed, small shellfish, rock pieces, and other invertebrates while playing. Unfortunately, they can accidentally ingest plastic debris that usually causes their death.

Dolphin diets in captivity will depend on food availability, including frozen sea fish and fresh fish local fishermen catch. You can also find commercial dolphin dietary food like fish, crustaceans, shrimp, and squid.

Dolphins’ favorite food

Dolphins’ favorite food

All existing dolphin species are carnivores that need a considerable amount of protein and fat to survive. Different dolphins species need various amounts of food, depending on their size.

On average, most dolphins need to intake food up to 2 to 10% of their body weight daily. So, a medium dolphin weighing 440 to 550 pounds (200 – 250 kg) will need at least 22 to 55 pounds (10 – 25 kg) fish a day. Their favorite food is:

  • Marine mammals – Large dolphin species often hunt smaller marine mammals, including small dolphins, sea lions, penguins, walruses, seals, whales, sharks, and even seabirds.
  • Fish – Most dolphins prefer consuming fish, regardless of the available species. The only difference is in fish size. For instance, small dolphins and those that never chew food will pick out smaller fish.
  • Sea turtles – Large dolphins grab and consume sea turtles whenever they can since they are an excellent source of fat. They often choose smaller species or hatchlings since they have softer shells. On the other hand, adult turtles’ shells are too hard, so they are safe from these voracious mammals.
  • Crustaceans – All dolphins like eating crustaceans, but they pick out different species, like lobsters, shrimp, crabs, krill, or crayfish, depending on their size. Since more than 67,000 crustaceans species live in nature, you can guess that each dolphin can get an adequate meal.
  • Octopus –  These molluscs don’t contain enough fat dolphins need. Although small dolphin species enjoy consuming these creatures, they need to supplement their diet with more caloric food.
  • Squid – Even though some dolphin species enjoy eating squid, this food type doesn’t have enough fat their bodies require. Therefore, dolphins need to consume more of these aquatic creatures compared to other food types.
  • Plankton – This seafood is a yummy bite for small dolphins. Since plankton lives in large groups, they are an easy meal for these mammals.

7 Facts About Dolphins


Dolphins are warm-blooded mammals with recognizable beaks and sharp conical-shaped teeth. Some species can swim long distances at a speed of impressive 25 mph (40 km/h), while others are capable of diving 1,000 feet (305 m) under the water surface or jump 20 feet (6 m) out of the water.

They are voluntary breathers, so they can hold their breath for a while and decide when to breathe. However, some of them need to take a breath every 20 seconds, and others can hold their breath for half an hour.

Dolphins types

Scientific classification Dolphins
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Mammalia
Order Artiodactyla
Infraorder Cetacea
Parvorder Odontoceti
Family Delphinidae, Inioidea, Platanistoidea, Lipotoidea

Social behavior

Dolphins are incredibly social animals that live in pods (groups) and form strong bonds for a lifetime. They even support sick and dying pod members when necessary. On the other hand, some dominant animals can be aggressive and can abuse the weaker group members.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Dolphins typically live at least 40 years. Females reach sexual maturity when they turn 8 to 11 years old, while most males become mature at 10 years of age.

All dolphin species give birth to live calves. After becoming mature, females can get pregnant every 2 to 4 years, but some species prolong that period to 5 to 7 years between two pregnancies.

They give birth to calves after a gestation of 9 to 12 months, primarily in a period from late spring to autumn. The only exception is dolphins that live in the central Pacific. All calves there are born from late winter to early spring.

Calves (baby dolphins)

An average calve is about 3 to 4 feet (0.9 – 1.2 m) long at birth and weighs approximately 30 pounds (13.5 kg). They eat their mothers’ milk for at least 18 months, but sometimes for years.

However, a few months old dolphins include small fish in their diet. Most of them will finally wean when increasing meat consumption. However, it is not rare that calves stay with their moms for a lifetime.

Dolphin habitats

Dolphin habitats

You can find these beautiful creatures worldwide since different species can stand all temperature levels. However, most of them prefer living in regions with average temperatures from 50 to 90 F (10 – 32 C). However, even these warm-blooded mammals avoid oceans close to the Arctic and Antarctic.

Basically, they will live in any environment with enough food. Therefore, many species pick out oceans, seas, and even rivers for their homes:

The Pacific Ocean

You can recognize two dolphin types living in this ocean. Shore-loving species don’t tolerate cold water, unlike dolphins that live in the deep ocean. Some of the most popular habitants are:

  • Common dolphins
  • Pacific white-sided dolphins
  • Spinner dolphins
  • Hector’s dolphin
  • Bottlenose dolphins
  • Chinese white dolphin

The Atlantic Ocean

You can find many dolphin species between Nova Scotia to Patagonia, including:

  • Atlantic spotted dolphins
  • Humpback dolphins
  • Atlantic white-sided dolphin
  • Bottlenose dolphins
  • Common dolphin

The Indian Ocean

Numerous dolphin species choose this ocean as their home, like:

  • Common dolphins
  • Bottlenose dolphins
  • Spinner dolphins
  • Humpback dolphins (highly endangered)
  • Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins


Even though the population of dolphins in the Mediterranean sea decreases, you can still see four dolphin species living there:

  • Bottlenose dolphins
  • Striped dolphins
  • Risso’s dolphins
  • Short-beaked common dolphins


Few people know that there are also freshwater dolphin species. Some of them are endangered.

  • Small bright pink Amazon river dolphins that weigh only 350 pounds (159 kg)
  • Yangtze river dolphins
  • Indus river dolphins (endangered)
  • Ganges river dolphins (endangered)

Hunting methods

Dolphins can go hunting individually or in a pod by using various techniques, like:

  • Herding – A dolphin pod often uses the highly efficient technique of surrounding and compressing a school of fish as much as possible. Then, mammals take turns eating all the fish they catch.
  • Corralling – It is an individual hunting method. A dolphin forces a fish to shallow water, disables it from escaping, and effortlessly catches it.
  • Stunning – This a bit cruel method implies that a dolphin hits the prey animal, typically smaller dolphins or whales, with the tail. That way, it stuns or confuses the victim, making its catching effortless.
  • Eco-localization – It is a process of emitting sound waves. By emitting them, dolphins quickly determine the exact prey location and rush in that direction to overcome it.

Since dolphins are highly intelligent creatures, they never stay in the same place for a long. Despite the food abundance, all habitats run out of food after a while.

It always takes time for the environment to recover. Therefore, dolphins almost always return to old food sources but wait enough time to allow them to replenish.


Unfortunately, many dolphin species are endangered nowadays, no matter where they live. The most severe threats that contribute to dolphins’ habitat degradation are:

  • Pollution
  • Ocean noise that interferes with dolphins’ communication, navigation, finding food, and choosing mates
  • Climate change and variation in ocean temperatures
  • Commercial fishing and whaling
  • Toxic contaminants
  • Entanglement in fishing gear like trap pots, longlines, gillnets, trawls, and seines
  • Boat collisions
  • Difficulties in finding prey
  • Severe incidental injuries during salmon and squid fisheries


Dolphins are intelligent and friendly aquatic mammals classified under the toothed whale category. They live in oceans, seas, and rivers worldwide and enjoy different living conditions and food types. However, all these animals are carnivorous and primarily consume fish, squids, crabs, turtles, crustaceans, and clams.

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